Heal thyself: Why healthcare professionals need a bit of selfishness

Alexandra Wilson will push for a self-care policy at WHO's World Health Assembly.

Alexandra Wilson will push for a self-care policy at WHO's World Health Assembly. Photo: Alexandra Wilson

An Australian medical student is off to Geneva, hoping a subject close to her heart gains traction at one of the world’s biggest health conferences.

Griffith University student Alexandra Wilson, 23, is making a push for a shift in self care at the World Health Organisation’s World Health Assembly from May 22.

If successful, her policy proposal will make self-care development compulsory for healthcare workers.

Her drafted proposal came from conversations with doctors, students and other healthcare workers, and underlines the need for self care to be implemented and used as a preventative measure.

“I think as soon as you include a self-care plan into professional development, it’s acknowledging from a top-down approach the importance of one individual’s mental state and physical wellbeing,” Ms Wilson told The New Daily.

“Which … impacts, patient interaction and patient safety outcome.”

Ms Wilson said some states had recommendations about self care, but there was no Australia-wide approach. Having a policy would benefit everyone from doctors to trainees, she said.

What is self care?

Every morning, Ms Wilson either goes to the gym or for a long run and that is her protected time each day.

“I do that every morning, to have that nice routine, and then it means that once the day starts – whether that’s placement, work or other commitments – I know that I’ve started my day in a way that I’m happy with,” she said.

She also enjoys reading, writing and spending time with loved ones.

Self care can look different for everyone. In fact, it can be anything from lifestyles choices to spiritual practices and beyond.

It could mean ensuring you get enough sleep, not bringing work home with you or just ensuring you have enough downtime.

Ms Wilson also doesn’t believe self-care practices or policies should apply only to healthcare professionals.

“I think it doesn’t matter what job you’re in, everyone needs to have some emergency, go-to self-care options in stressful situations, as well as some in your day-to-day routine to be protected,” she said.

pictured is someone running, a form of self care

Exercising, sleeping more and setting boundaries are all examples of self-care practices. Photo: Getty

The medical student didn’t always have an interest in policy. She initially thought it was reserved for those decades older than her who were fuelled by politics.

However, in her first year of study, Ms Wilson realised medicine could be “quite financially selective”, which could mean some communities missed on those who could serve their health needs, because finances created a barrier.

She soon found that her passion for clinical health complemented her appreciation for public health policy. That eventually led to her applying and securing the Global Voices scholarship.

Dialogue needs to shift

It has been a gruelling few years for frontline workers, thanks to COVID-19 putting immense pressure on the healthcare system, plus long hours and heavy work loads that pre-date the pandemic.

“COVID didn’t help at all. I think the moral injury, like vicarious trauma exposure, stress, staff shortages, you could go on about the issues,” said Ms Wilson, who has completed placements as part of her studies.

Even medical students are affected. For the past three years, Ms Wilson has been involved in the Queensland Medical Students Council.

“Very sadly in my time, we’ve had six Queensland students pass, which is just unimaginable – that we’re losing students and junior doctors before [their] career’s even progressed,” she said.

Ms Wilson said healthcare workers were generally supportive of one another. But issues could arise with things that colleagues didn’t often speak about, such as mental health.

“The hope is that when we promote self care, that extends beyond just external activities and includes talking and exposing ourselves to resources and education to better inform ourselves, I think hopefully that dialogue will start to shift,” she said.

However, she also notes that across the board, suicide rates are likely under-reported due to fear of repercussions, stigma and access to services.

Despite the challenges facing healthcare professionals, Ms Wilson thinks she is coming into the field at a promising time.

She pointed to Queensland’s Hospital Health Boards Act, which makes hospitals responsible for the mental health of their doctors.

“I think that’s just like highlighting where this field is going at the moment,” she said.

“While it can be quite tragic and really difficult for all healthcare workers, there is this movement and discussion about it. Because I think if we don’t do something, if we don’t talk about it, the stats are going to show for itself in either poor patient outcomes, higher turnover of doctors or even worse.”

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